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"Menilmontant" [1924-25]




French avant-garde cinema at its best.

A fine commentary by David Badagnani...

Dimitri Kirsanoff's Menilmontant (1925)

researched by

David Badagnani

Directed by Dimitri Kirsanoff (b. Dorpat, Estonia, March 6, 1899; d. France, February 11 1957, of a heart attack)

Cast: Nadia Sibirskaia (Younger sister), Yolande Beaulieu (Older sister), Guy Belmont (Young man), Jean Pasquier, Maurice Ronsard.

Estonian-born filmmaker Dimitri Kirsanoff emigrated to Paris with his parents in the early 1920s. There he trained as a musician, studying cello at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris and playing music for silent films. He quickly became associated with the circle of young avant-garde ("impressionist") French filmmakers, and began making his own independently produced films on tiny budgets. These stylish, original, early films earned him a considerable critical reputation and were later deemed precursors of both French "poetic realism" and Italian neo-realism. Kirsanoff's first wife, the beautiful Nadia Sibirskaïa (born Jeanne Brunet in Redon, France, 1901), was the principal actress in most of his early films. (She also appeared in Jean Renoir's famous Crime of M. Lange (1935).) Kirsanoff's second wife, Monique Kirsanoff (b. 1913) is the editor of numerous French films.

Menilmontant (1925), Kirsanoff's second film, is also his best known. (His first film, L'Ironie du destin, completed in 1923, is now lost). Kirsanoff not only directed, but co-photographed, edited, and produced the film for his own company. Menilmontant was filmed during the winter of 1924-25, primarily on location in Menilmontant, a poor working class suburb on the eastern edge of Paris which gives the film its name. Originally entitled Les cents pas (The Hundred Steps), the film was at first rejected by Paris film distributors. It was subsequently picked up by film presenter Jean Tedesco for the second season of his series at the Vieux-Colombier theater, and came to be known as Menilmontant. Kirsanoff's film helped assure the success of the Vieux-Colombier and soon became a major film on the cine-club and specialized film circuit.

Menilmontant is in many ways a striking film, and has been described as "une oevre presque parfaite" ("a nearly perfect work") (Georges Sadoul, Le Cinema Francais, 1962). Its story is told entirely in images, without the use of explanatory intertitles; Kirsanoff was among the very rare filmmakers of the silent era to attempt this. The film makes use of techniques such as montage, hand-held camera, ultra-rapid montage, and superposition to achieve the elusive, transcendent quality of "photogenie" so sought after by the French impressionist film directors of the era. Menilmontant, thus, comes closer to poetry than to narrative prose.

After Menilmontant, Kirsanoff continued his experiments in film, most notably with Brumes d'automne (Autumn Mists) (1929), and Rapt (1934), made in Switzerland, which featured the use of "contrapuntal sound," with music by Arthur Honegger. With the coming of sound and his separation from Sibirskaïa in 1939, Kirsanoff lost personal artistic control of his work and had to resign himself to working on mediocre commercial films and sponsored documentaries.

Pointless Orchestra's score makes use of fragments from the original film score to Menilmontant (the composer's identity is unknown), the only surviving copy in the U.S. of which is located in the special collections of the library at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Many thanks to University of Wisconsin Senior Academic Librarian Geri Laudati for her generosity in allowing us use of the score for this performance.

Quotes about Menilmontant:

"A flurry of hand-held camera shots, incisive montages and elliptical progressions." (Geoff Brown, Monthly Film Bulletin, 1981)

"...one of the greatest experimental films--an exquisite, poetic 40-minute movie that is one of the least known masterpieces of the screen...the extraordinary editing is, at first, confusing and upsetting and, finally, dazzling...the performance by Nadia Sibirskaïa as the younger of the two [sisters] is surpassingly beautiful. In one scene, she is seated on a park bench next to an old man who surreptitiously shares his food with her--it's as great as anything in Chaplin." (Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies: A Guide from A to Z, 1984)

"D. Kirsanoff montre, au cours de ces films, des qualites extremement interessantes par leur tonalite impressionniste et pathetique qui comptent parmi les realisations les plus caracteristiques de l'epoque (L'Encyclopédie du Cinema, ed. Roger Boussinot, 1967)

Articles by Dimitri Kirsanoff:
1924 "Pour et contre le film sans texte." Cinea-Cine-pour-tous 17 (15 July 1924), 8.
1925 "Les Mysteres de la photogenie." Cinea-Cine-pour-tous 39 (15 June 1925), 9.
1926 "Les Problemes de la photogenie." Cinea-CinÃe-pour-tous 62 (1 June 1926), 9-10.


Dimitri Kirsanoff filmography:

1923 L'Ironie du destin (The Irony of Fate) (lost)
1925 Menilmontant
1926 Sylvie Destin (Destins)
1927 Sables
1929 Brumes d'automne (Autumn Mists)
1931 Les Nuits de Port Said
1933 Rapt - La Separation des races (English titles: The Mystic Mountain and The Kidnapping) (Switzerland)
1935 Les Berceaux (short)
1936 Visages de France (documentary)
1936 La Fontaine d'Aréthuse (short)
1936 La Jeune Fille au jardin (short)
1937 Franco de Port
1938 La Plus Belle Fille du monde ne peut donner que ce au'elle a
1938 L'Avion de minuit
1939 Quartier sans soleil (Kirsanoff's last film to feature Sibirskaïa) (release delayed until 1945)
1946 Deux Amis (short)
1949 Faits Divers a Paris (short)
1950 Arrière Saison (short)
1951 La Mort du cerf - Une Chasse à Courre à Villiers-Cotterets (short)
1952 Le Témoin de minuit
1955 Le Craneur (La vallée de paradis)
1956 Ce Soir les jupons volent (Tonight the Skirts Fly)
1956 Miss Catastrophe


Run time 37 minutes 54 seconds
Producer Dimitri Kirsanoff
Audio/Visual Music bed, Black and White, silent


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